While there are certainly no guarantees your bird will talk, there are certain steps you can take to bring out “the chatterbox” in your pet birds and get them talking. Here are some suggestions:
Courtesy Heather Strella, California
The key in teaching your bird to talk is to be consistent in its training.
Look at the whole bird. To encourage your bird to talk, you need to make sure your bird is mentally and physically healthy. That means providing your bird with the right sized cage, regular exercise and time outside of its cage, plenty of toys for mental stimulation, enough sleep each night so that it is well-rested and a well-balanced diet. If there is something that is causing your bird stress, take steps to alleviate or minimize the problem. Once you’re meeting your bird’s physical and emotional needs, you’re ready to work on speech training.
Start with simple words like “Hi,” “Hello,” “Bye,” “Night-night,” and the bird’s name or your name. Birds learn by repetition, so you may need to say the word many times every day for several days or weeks until it starts saying what you want it to say. If you wish to intensify your training a bit, you might want to use a tape recorder with an endless cassette tape or a pre-recorded CD with a few desired phrases on it that you can play for your bird for a certain amount of time each day.
Reward your bird with praise and food treats when it says what you’re trying to teach it to say. The second you hear your bird utter the desired words, run over to its cage or playgym or wherever it is sitting and tell it, “Oh, that’s really good!” “The bird will learn to associate talking with praise and attention from you, and that will make him want to say it again,” said Brian Speer, DVM, an avian veterinarian in California.
Once your bird picks up its first word, you can add new words into its vocabulary. Gradually build on the words your bird knows; if it says your name, then move to “Hello, name,” or “Night-night, name.” Keep in mind there is no guarantee that if your bird hears a particular word nonstop for three weeks that it will eventually pick up the word.
Individual parrots prefer the sounds of some words more than others and may refuse to say some phrases just because they don’t like how they sound. So if you’ve spent several weeks trying to teach a particular word to your bird and you’re getting nowhere, you may want to try teaching it another word with a completely different sound.
Be enthusiastic! Parrots may learn to say almost anything if it is said with an enthusiastic, cheerful tone of voice. “Use a lot of emotion in your voice, and accompany it with appropriate expressions,” suggests parrot owner and pet trade consultant Gayle Soucek of Illinois.
If you want your bird to communicate with you, and not just repeat phrases, use the words in context, just as you would use them with a human infant. “Each time you offer something to your bird, the name of the item should be repeated a few times and used in a sentence,” said biologist and parrot communication researcher Irene Pepperberg, Ph.D., author of The Alex Studies (Harvard University Press, 1999). For instance, as you hand your parrot some corn, tell him, “Corn. That’s your corn. Yummy, corn.” This can teach your bird the actual meaning of the word. Also, Pepperberg added, teaching a food word like “corn” or “grape,” “will give your bird a real impetus to learn the names of the foods because he learns that if he says the word, he’s going to get the food item.”
You can also teach your parrot concepts like “Good morning!” if you say that to him every morning when you first greet him, and “See you later!” if you repeat that phrase each time you leave him to go to work. The key is to be consistent, and say it every time you do it.
Don’t become discouraged. It takes time to teach a bird to talk. Realize, too, that some individual birds need more time than others. Be patient with your bird, and give it all the time it needs. Most birds are not going to learn their first words overnight. It may take many months of work with your parrot before any words are uttered.
At first you may just hear “muttering” or “babbling” sounds from your bird. Maybe you may think that’s the closest your parrot will ever get to talking. In reality, though, the garble and mumbling sounds are how parrots practice talking. It’s not much different than how a human child learns to talk, according to avian veterinarian Gregory Burkett, DVM, of North Carolina. Your parrot may make unintelligible noises at the beginning of its training and then all of sudden one day, the word will come out. Once a bird has learned its first word, subsequent words usually come faster.
Keep It Clean
Be aware of what you say in front of your parrot once it does learn to talk. Many bird owners have been embarrassed by profanity, angry words or other “bad” language that has come out of their bird’s beak when company is around. Obviously, your best bet is to be careful of what you say around your parrots so they don’t hear things that they shouldn’t repeat.
What should you do if your parrot already has learned a bad word? Bird behavior consultant Michelle Karras suggests you try to move your bird on to more desirable phrases. She once rescued a female macaw named Rocky that had been living in a very bad environment and had picked up a lot of four-letter words. “There was one four-letter word in particular (with the “er” suffix) that Rocky would scream at the top of her lungs, usually while all my windows were open and the neighbors were out in their backyard,” Karras sighed.
She trained Rocky to stop repeating the bad word by redirecting her into saying a word that sounded very similar and was acceptable. This was accomplished by whenever Rocky would say the unacceptable word, Karras would tell her, “No, Supper!” “It took me four months to redirect her to saying ‘Supper’ but finally we succeeded and she has never said the other word again,” Karras related. “Oftentimes when she’s angry she’ll still yell, ‘Supper!’ but that’s a whole lot better than what she used to say.”